Book recommendation: Strangers in the Bible: Loved but not embraced?

René Micallef is a Maltese priest and associate professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University, a founding member of RME Network. In his latest publication, “Strangers in the Bible: Loved but not embraced?”, René – who is also part of the leadership team of RME Network – breaks new ground by blending the study of scripture with ethical reflection. His book combines debates, methods, and findings to explore how the Bible informs ethical issues. We caught up with him to learn more about his work.

Q: René, you have recently published the book, “Strangers in the Bible: Loved but not embraced?”. What is it about?

René Micallef: “The book aims to do two things. It is in part a methodology book. It teaches people involved in ethics and social reflection and action – such as people accompanying migrants or teaching about migration – how to sojourn as strangers in the land of the Bible. Bible-land is inhabited today, almost exclusively, by charismatic preachers and experts of scholarly exegesis. It is time for the rest of us to step inside this territory and linger there, even while recognizing that we are not the “natives” of Bible-land and need to adapt to the strangeness of this environment. Hence, the first objective of the book is to bridge the gap between exegesis and ethics – and, by extension, also social and political thought and action. The second aim is to give a concrete example of how this bridging can be achieved. I do this by exploring the topic of the stranger in the Bible. I analyze various texts which speak about the condition of strangerhood, and which suggest different attitudes towards sojourners, migrants and refugees, in order to construct a complex picture of the many different voices in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures on this issue. Then, I present some takeaways for ethical and social reflection and action today.”

Q: Could you elaborate on how you approach this integration?

René Micallef: “There are texts in the Bible which speak about loving the stranger as one’s own people, and others which suggest bashing the heads of the children of foreigners against rocks. There are texts which present a woman from a despised people – the Moabites – falling in love with Israel’s people and Israel’s God, emigrating to Bethlehem and eventually marrying a Jew and giving rise to the Davidic dynasty, which is the quintessential Jewish royal line. And there are texts which obligate any Jews who had married foreign wives to repudiate (divorce) them and abandon the children born of such marriages, seeing such contact with strangers as a grievous offense towards God. These texts even name and shame all the Jews involved in such marriages. In my book, I explore some of these texts, using tools such as rhetorical and narrative analysis, as well as the results of historical and critical analysis, and help the reader to contextualize and make sense of such striking contrasts. There is no recipe in the Bible teaching us how to deal with migration. Rather, it shines a light on the complexity of human reality and on the ills of certain extreme attitudes, like xenophobia, on the one hand, and the disregard of one’s own identity, on the other, and explores different ways of navigating it prudently.”

Q: Do you also explore texts of the New Testament?

René Micallef: ”In the New Testament, one of the best-known stories is that of the Good Samaritan. We often forget that in this story it is the foreigner (a despised Samaritan, often seen as a sort of hooligan or potential terrorist) who saves the native victim. Elsewhere in the New Testament, Christian communities are seen as migrants inhabiting a foreign land, and this is not just an issue of legal status in ancient cities, but also serves as a central metaphor of what living as a Christian on Earth entails.”

Q: What inspired you to explore this particular topic?

René Micallef: “I have volunteered in faith-based NGOs with migrants and refugees, and I see that in such contexts there is a desire to explain to the non-Christian staff and to the migrants why Christians do such work and what inspires them. They want to make it clear that they aren’t doing this for the money, or to take advantage of the vulnerability of migrants and refugees in order to proselytize them. Rather, they do this gratuitously because they believe in compassion and justice for marginalized groups, and this belief is rooted in their faith. But it is often hard to link that faith with Scripture, which in such contexts is used very selectively. Activists and pastors cherry pick the texts that seem to speak more clearly about loving the stranger, but ignore the rest of the texts. My book seeks to approach Scriptures honestly. It allows such activists and pastors, as well as ethics students in universities, to dig deeper into these popular texts. It also explores ways how a compassionate and justice-seeking reader can deal with the texts that are more hostile towards the “other”, and which are sometimes cherry-picked and exploited by xenophobes, racists and other migrant-hating trolls on social media, and sometimes even by politicians seeking the votes of pious Christians by fabricating irrational fears about mass migration.”

Q: Your work has been praised for its depth and thoughtfulness in examining the concept of “the stranger”, both in scripture and in today’s society. What challenges did you encounter in this interdisciplinary approach, and how did you address them?

René Micaleff: “Often, in our universities, scientific disciplines are locked into silos. Exegetes often champion specific exegetical techniques and don’t communicate well with other exegetes using other techniques, and most are so specialized in one section of the Bible that they don’t like to follow an issue through the whole of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. My approach not only engages various exegetical positions, but brings in political science, ethics, philosophy, sociology, history, and other disciplines seeking to create an interdisciplinary dialogue on a very sensitive and complex topic. My book occupies a niche which risks being abandoned in today’s book market – it is not overly technical and scholarly, nor is it truly “popular”, but seeks to further educate learned readers who want to deepen their knowledge of an issue in a rigorous manner. I’m not sure all the experts will be happy with what I have achieved, but it is a serious attempt to overcome the barriers and confines of our academic landscape, sit down with “strangers”, and have a serious discussion on a very important issue.”


More info:

Strangers in the Bible: Loved but not Embraced?
by Rene Micallef

Published by Paulist Press International, U.S. (6. Februar 2024)
ISBN: 978-08091-4996-4